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Beidou: China's new satellite navigation system


On 28 October 2014, just three weeks before Prime Minister Abbott and PRC President Xi Jinping signed an agreement in Hobart promising  ‘increased collaboration in Antarctic science’,  the Chinese official newsagency Xinhua announced that China would be establishing the first Antarctic base station for its Beidou satellite navigation system.

The Beidou (北斗) system is China’s equivalent of the US-operated Global Positioning System (GPS). Given the broad functionality of such a technology in the civilian, scientific and military spheres, it is not surprising that polities beyond the United States should also have set about developing their own satellite-based navigation systems. These include the Russian GLONASS system, operational globally, the European Union’s Galileo system which is expected to be in full service in 2020, as well as the Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System (IRNSS) and the Japanese Quasi-Zenith Satellite System which are both regional systems.

 The Beidou system became operational in China in December 2011, with 16 satellites in use, and began offering services to customers in the Asia-Pacific region in December 2012. It is planned that by 2020, the Beidou system will comprise approximately 35 satellites (more than the 32 currently deployed for GPS), including both orbiting and geostationary vehicles, as well as related ground stations. China has reportedly already installed the navigation system on more than 50,000 Chinese fishing boats and in November 2014 the Maritime Safety Committee of the UN’s International Maritime Organization formally included Beidou in its listing of satellite navigation systems approved for use at sea. Chips which will enable smartphones and tablets to communicate with the Beidou satellites have already been developed. China has also recently announced that Beidou will tie into all existing satellite systems.

Thailand became the first overseas client of Beidou in April 2013, when a 2 billion yuan (A$407 million) agreement was signed in Bangkok aimed at promoting the use of Beidou in Thailand's public sector, including disaster relief, power distribution and transport. Then in March 2014, it was reported that the Royal Thai Army was mulling over the purchase of two new types of multiple rocket launcher systems from China, with these systems being tied to the Beidou navigation system. A Beidou satellite station is now being built in Thailand’s Chonburi province. Wuhan Optics Valley BeiDou Geospatial Information Industry, which is taking part in the project in Thailand, has drawn up plans to build 220 ground stations in Thailand in the coming years and aims to eventually have 1,000 such stations across Southeast Asia.

Optics Valley has also reportedly signed an agreement with the Malaysian Investment Development Authority to jointly construct a ‘BeiDou ASEAN Data and Service Center’ in Malaysia. China and Indonesia have also inked an agreement whereby Indonesia will have access to China’s satellite data.  Other tie-ups are claimed, including with Mexico, Israel, Sweden, Laos, Singapore, Russia, North Korea and Pakistan. The China-ASEAN Expos held annually in Nanjing and ‘Beidou ASEAN Tours’ are major marketing foci for Beidou.

In Australia, Beidou/GPS comparison studies are being carried out by academics, while in September 2014 representatives of Geoscience Australia travelled to Beijing and held discussions with the China Satellite Navigation Systems Office, reportedly ‘about collaboration on the satellite navigation front’.   A month later, Geoscience Australia called for tenders to update the receivers and antennae infrastructure used to track and communicate with satellites of the diverse global satellite navigation systems.

While China is anxious to promote the system as being aimed at disaster relief, vessel and vehicle monitoring, meteorological uses and tourism, the Beidou system also has high-precision military functions. These functions have been repeatedly recorded in the PRC military press, where the system is lauded for its locational precision and targeting functions as well as time synchronisation capacities and the convenience of the hand-held devices. Beidou facilities have already been deployed with Chinese military units in the South China Sea and are also now used in civil defence exercises across China. This is not unexpected  given that the military conglomerate China North Industries Group Corporation (NORINCO) appears to be a key sponsor of the Beidou project, while the PLA-linked telecoms company Xinwei is reportedly another of the units involved. In January this year, NORINCO and China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) signed an agreement whereby NORINCO will build Beidou-compatible missiles for warships constructed by CSSC.

While the breadth of the applicability of satellite navigation systems is known to all, with functions ranging from air traffic control, astronomy, motoring, mining, geo-tagging, disaster relief, cartography, fleet tracking and robotics, to tectonics and recreation, it is their powerful and high-precision military tracking, targeting and coordinating capacities which appeal in the strategic realm.  

Control over a satellite navigation system provides massive advantage in both military and civilian spheres which in turn translates into huge influence over states and regions. It is thus that intense global competition has arisen in terms of satellite-borne time-space locators, as well as in the development of counterspace weapons.

As competition in space between the great powers continues and their strategic rivalry across the Asia-Pacific increases, the spread and application of China’s Beidou satellite navigation system might prove a useful progressive marker to reflect how certain aspects of this rivalry are proceeding.